prohibition and marijuana

The lessons learned from Prohibition — and how cannabis could follow their lead

From one prohibition to another, entrepreneurs look to make the right post-criminalization moves.

The end of alcohol prohibition can provide a roadmap for cannabis entrepreneurs. (Photo: The Syndicate)

Hushed voices. Products that people want — and that others want stopped. Providers who operate by word-of-mouth and the cover of night, fearing that any slip-up could bring with it an immediate close of business and, most likely, a jail cell.

It’s a tale frequently told about cannabis’s role at the beginning of this most recent decade. But it could also apply to the period of 1920-33, when a nationwide ban on alcohol gave rise to an entire generation of history’s so-called bad guys who justified their actions by saying they were simply giving the people what they wanted.

Now, as 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most epic failed experiments in American history — and the modern-day process of cannabis legalization draws obvious parallels — it’s worth exploring the similarities between the two periods, and what can be learned from their immediate aftermath.

Titans of industry

From politics to professional sports, soft drinks to alcohol, some of the 20th century’s most successful names and companies traced their roots back to prohibition. Whether through legal means or that which was considered illegal at the time, those smart enough to capitalize on a government-created opportunity came out the other side as respected businessmen. What began as bathtub gin or medicinal whiskey would eventually become today’s most iconic liquor brands.

The build-up

The so-called “War on Drugs” dragged on for nearly 50 years – and the marijuana ban stretches back even further. Alcohol Prohibition lasted a mere fraction of that period, but by the time it concluded, the citizenry of the United States had been whipped into a frenzy of unquenchable thirst. Both cases have proven that prohibition and criminalization result in elevated desirability: As every parent knows, nothing makes a kid want candy more than being told they can’t have candy. Now, for the first time in their lifetimes, American adults are receiving legal access to cannabis – and the soaring growth of the industry can be attributed to all that time and money the government spent trying to stop it.

Safety concerns

Gangster movies and romanticized books make the 1920s seem like a magical time of rebellion and rapscallions – but the fact of the matter is, prohibitions are dangerous. Between those who went to jail, those who lost their lives and others who consumed sketchy product from questionable sources, there is an indisputable risk that vanishes the moment an industry becomes legalized. During Prohibition, the government knew that bootleggers often “cleaned up” industrial alcohols to make their liquor – so they increased regulations, requiring that industrial manufacturers add poisonous chemicals to discourage the practice. This resulted in a tug-of-war between government chemists mixing in lethal ingredients (like benzine and mercury) and bootlegger chemists trying to remove them – and resulted in thousands of deaths. Next time you make a purchase at your corner liquor store, you might want to consider how far we’ve come.

Society’s well-being

Once upon a time, if you indulged in liquor or cannabis, you were a criminal. There’s a good chance you felt guilty about your activities, had others look down upon you, and feared persecution if caught. Once the legal status changed, however, such behavior could be embraced in public and among friends. Think about what that does to the mindset of an individual ­– and indeed, to a society at large. Not long ago, if a few pals wanted to get together for beers, they had to do so in secrecy and shame; nowadays, there’s a sports bar in every neighborhood. As long as there are people, there will always be a need to unwind from the stresses of the world – and a safe, reliable, legal way to do so is much better than the alternative.

With a wink and a nod to the “criminal” elements of prohibition, licensed cannabis retailer The Syndicate operates three locations across Southern California. Emerging from the ashes of the crumbling cannabis prohibition, the company’s founders chose the name because they saw modern parallels to a time when alcohol distributors were finally freed to provide a safe, dependable product to adults who wanted it.

And the name itself is loaded with historical connotations: In the 1920s and early 1930s, alcohol producers would sometimes discreetly join forces, banding together as a syndicate. On Dec. 5, 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed — and, overnight, members of these syndicates were transformed from wanted criminals into respected business owners.

Not long ago, those who wanted to push the cannabis industry forward were similarly viewed as criminals in the eyes of law enforcement. They were subject to raids, arrests and imprisonment, and, for many, the only relief was strength in numbers, joining like-minded individuals and building a strong network of families, friends, lawyers and supporters.

This is why each location of The Syndicate is designed to resemble a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The dim lights, brick walls and mug shots of infamous gangsters that adorn each location’s walls may make you feel like you should whisper, or watch out of the corner of your eye for a lawman busting through the door. But have no fear. Thanks to the forward-thinking men and women who’ve emerged from this more recent prohibition, you can now purchase cannabis in a legal, safe and respectable manner.

Outside of The Syndicate’s Woodland Hills location. (Photo: The Syndicate)

However, the road to cannabis legalization has been a lot longer than its alcohol counterpart’s. Whereas alcohol prohibition lasted only 13 years, cannabis has been against the law since Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, in which the government banned the sale, cultivation and use of cannabis. Now, though, things are changing for the industry. Today, several states allow for the medical use of marijuana. Plus, it’s legal for recreational use in 11 states, with more likely to come in 2020. Although cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, the majority of Americans support overturning prohibition. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in September, 67% of Americans said they think marijuana should be legal, and 91% said they support making medical marijuana legal. Opposition to legalized marijuana has fallen from 52% in 2010 to just 32%, the survey reported.

With cannabis moving toward widespread legalization, are the owners of The Syndicate poised to someday oversee a multibillion-dollar empire of their own? According to the history books, you might not want to bet against it.

To check out The Syndicate’s high-quality cannabis products, visit

Medical Retail: C10-0000536-LIC

Adult-Use Retail: C10-0000536-LIC

Recreational/medical marijuana is available under California law however it is illegal under Federal Law. Not intended for use by anyone under 21.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.

From one prohibition to another, entrepreneurs look to make the right post-criminalization moves.

The racist origins of marijuana prohibition

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Weird orgies. Wild parties. Roots in Hell. How did marijuana get such a bad wrap? The answer is simple. Racism.

As early as the 1800s, there were no federal restrictions on the sale or possession of cannabis in the US. Hemp fiber from the plant was used to make clothes, paper, and rope. Sometimes it was used medicinally, but as a recreational drug, it wasn’t that widespread. A New York Times article from 1876 even cites the positive use of cannabis to cure a patient’s dropsy. Basically swelling from an accumulation of fluid.

In the early 1900s, an influx of Mexican immigrants came to the US fleeing political unrest in their home country. With them, they brought the practice of smoking cannabis recreationally. And it took off. The Spanish word for the plant started to be used more often too. Marijuana. Or as it was spelled at that time, marihuana, with an “H. This is when the more sensational headlines about the drug began to appear.

In 1936, a propaganda film called Reefer Madness was released. In the movie, teenagers smoke weed for the first time and this leads to a series of horrific events involving hallucination, attempted rape, and murder. Much of the media portrayed it as a gateway drug.

[Reporter] Marijuana, a powerful excitant, produces unpredictable emotional results. But its greatest danger lies in the fact that it is a stepping stone to the harder drugs such as morphine and heroin.

Narrator: The following year in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. Cannabis sales were now taxed. Part of the reason this act was passed was because of all the fear-mongering going on at the time. And a huge instigator of that fear-mongering was the man behind the Marihuana Tax Act, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was named the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the prohibition era. But once national prohibition ended in 1933, Anslinger turned his focus to marijuana. This is when racism and xenophobia really kicked in.

Harry Anslinger took the scientifically unsupported idea of marijuana as a violence-inducing drug, connected it to black and Hispanic people, and created a perfect package of terror to sell to the American media and public. By emphasizing the Spanish word marihuana instead of cannabis, he created a strong association between the drug and the newly arrived Mexican immigrants who helped popularize it in the States. He also created a narrative around the idea that cannabis made black people forget their place in society. He pushed the idea that jazz was evil music created by people under the influence of marijuana.

But these racist ideas didn’t just influence the media’s portrayal or the public’s perception of the drug, the discrimination they encouraged was evident in real numbers. In the first full year after the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, black people were about three times more likely to be arrested for violating narcotic drug laws than whites. And Mexicans were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.

By 1952, the Boggs Act was passed. This made sentencing for drug convictions mandatory. A first offense for possession could land you two to five years in prison and a fine up to $2,000. Through the 1960s and 70s, weed-smoking took on a new perception through the counterculture movement. Young white people resisted mainstream culture and powerful institutions. This was the era of hippies, beatniks, and flower power. But despite all the peace and love, laws continued to emphasize the severity of the drug. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 passed under President Nixon.

– America’s public enemy number one.

– Repealed the Marihuana Tax Act and instead made cannabis a schedule I drug. The most serious class. Schedule I drugs are considered to have a high potential for abuse and addiction. With no medical use. Other examples of Schedule I drugs are heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Classifying cannabis as a schedule I drug has been highly debated since then.

– Marijuana is not a schedule I any more than a hedgehog is an apex predator.

– But to this day, it remains in that category and criminalization still disproportionately affects minority groups in the US. The ACLU reported that in 2010, black people were four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people, even though both groups consume marijuana at about the same rate. Some states have taken action to reduce this type of criminalization. Nine states and Washington DC have legalized the recreational use of cannabis. And 29 states allow some form of medical marijuana. San Francisco recently dropped thousands of marijuana-related convictions. And Seattle plans to do the same. But this doesn’t change the federal restrictions. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems Hell-bent on enforcing those federal rules.

– Good people don’t smoke marijuana.

– Kansas State Representative Steven Alford made a case against legalizing cannabis by referring to the racist rhetoric of the Anslinger era.

– And we’re still seeing a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment.

– They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, their rapists.

– So while some things have changed on the state level, some politicians are sticking with the fear-mongering and racism playbook. Even though Pew Research polls show that 61% of Americans now approve of nationwide legalization. Up from 16% about 30 years ago. Popular opinion suggests it’s high time to reconsider federal laws.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in March 2018.

As the marijuana legalization debate continues, it's important to examine the connections between media portrayal, public perception, and fluctuating laws.